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On DEI: Irene Li, Co-Founder, Mei Mei Dumplings

irene li headshot 2022Irene LiOver the past decade, Irene Li has grown her business from Chinese-American food truck to restaurant to factory to consulting startup. Winner of the 2022 James Beard Foundation’s Leadership Award and a six-time Rising Star Chef nominee, Li co-founded Boston’s Mei Mei Dumplings and became its sole owner in 2020. When the pandemic hit, she embraced tactics that set the business on a new trajectory, ramping up dumpling-making classes, packaging and selling dumplings at farmers markets and other retail outlets, and priming the brand for exponential growth.

This January, with new managing partners, Li moved Mei Mei into a 5,500-square-foot dumpling factory, classroom and café. Much of her energy today is focused on Prepshift, a restaurant consultancy she developed to help restaurant owners leverage technology and operate more profitably. It’s part of her passion for making restaurant jobs more appealing and for improving the odds of independent restaurant success, especially those owned by members of underrepresented communities.

“I wanted to leverage what I’ve learned at Mei Mei to support more diverse businesses, businesses that don’t have resources for traditional consulting and training,” Li says. “The goal is to help them be both financially and culturally healthy.”

At Mei Mei, Li’s strong embrace of diversity, equity and inclusion contributes to a culture that reflects her values. “Our business is very diverse in terms of race, sexual orientation and gender expression,” she says. “Initially, it was simply organic. But as we matured and grew, we had to figure out how to create structure around it to protect and maintain that beautiful aspect of the business.”

Training and discussion on inclusive hospitality is a cornerstone of that structure. “We ask our team to educate us and each other. We create opportunities for people to get to know each other so they can understand where others are coming from,” Li says. “Prior to the pandemic, one of our cooks, for example, suggested a session on gender-inclusive hospitality. They kept hearing greetings like ‘hi, ladies’ and ‘hi, guys’ being used, which they didn’t feel fit with the type of inclusivity we’re committed to offering regardless of who is in a group or in the room.”

Mei Mei also worked with Boston’s Age Strong Commission, training its staff and earning certification as an age- and dementia-friendly business. And Li ensures employees know that their own safety comes first. “We created safety protocols around harassment and we run de-escalation training to make sure employees feel equipped and empowered to handle difficult situations,” she says.

Li is also a big proponent of open-book management, a leadership approach that she says changed her life and her business. Embedded in the philosophy, which espouses sharing financial data, goals and strategies with employees and incentivizing their engagement, is the central tenet that everyone has intrinsic value. “Every employee’s experience and insights matter,” she says. When we include and invest in all team members, the entire team benefits.”

Irene Li

Co-Founder, Mei Mei Dumplings

Co-founder & CEO, Prepshift, ireneshiangli.com